Photo: Greg Mionske
What is it that keeps us going? When we have lofty goals, a high standard, and a desire for perfection, how do we keep moving? As an endurance athlete, I ponder this question frequently. I know the sacrifice, focus, and drive involved in pursuing something at full capacity. So what happens on the days where motivation is lacking or injury ensues? How do we find a way to keep pushing?
Recently I was forced to learn the essence of my motivation. I was faced with the idea of never running again. A career – a way of life – over. I had a nearly fatal fall competing in a race last season, an accident which left me severely injured. Luckily, I wasn’t paralyzed, however, my injuries were extensive. I broke a total of 12 bones (including my back), and I literally had to learn to walk again.
I had to start over, completely. I went from top, race-ready, run 50 miles through the mountains one day, to 100 % dependency (not being able to go to the bathroom for 7 days), the next day. But even in my state, I couldn’t help but think - when will I run again? How will I get there? How do I start over and rebuild?
Even without a catastrophic event or injury, growth and change are difficult to achieve. Every day since the accident, I have had some struggle with motivation, self-doubt, or incapability. Throughout the process of my recovery and return to running, I have developed a series of mantras. I keep them close at hand, to draw on in times of reservation or hopelessness, and I’ll continue to draw on them when I return to training at full capacity.
Just show up.
I used this mantra at the very beginning when I couldn’t walk or drive or perform daily tasks without help. I told myself to keep showing up, that If I kept showing up, I would become a little stronger than if I didn’t try at all. On days when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed or facing the world and its unrelenting challenges, this mantra helped me to at least give myself a chance to be better.
Do everything you can to take care of YOU today.
Once showing up became a bit easier (and sometimes it never does), I started each day with an exercise as a way to prioritize self-care. It didn’t need to be elaborate. Sometimes it meant getting fresh air, wearing my favorite shirt, or getting an extra hour of sleep. Most days involved focusing on physical therapy, good nutrition, and making sure I didn’t fall down in the shower (I still couldn’t walk at this point, and I had two broken arms). Nevertheless, self-care can easily be overlooked and simple additions to my daily routine shifted the energy of my whole day by simply asking to take care of myself.
Did I honor my process today?
This is not a rhetorical question. This mantra has been influential in shifting my approach to recovery and training. It has allowed me permission to accept where I am. Whether it was a challenging day emotionally, a tough workout, or if I was lacking physical energy, asking myself “Did I honor my process today?” allowed me to step back and give myself compassion. Every day is not an exam, it is not a measure of my worth. It can, however, be a mark, a single brick laid in the groundwork of a new house. Every brick is not perfect, nor the same, yet each one contributes to the structure and integrity of the final creation.
Control what you can.
I’m a planner. I love to-do lists, goals, and looking to the future. But what happens when I can’t have a plan, when I can’t push my body physically, when I don’t know when I’ll race again or plan my year accordingly? The ambiguity required a shift in perspective. I had to be completely focused on the present: to focus on what was immediately in front of my feet, to tackle that in small chunks and digest reality in real-time consciousness. Now, I constantly ask myself: what can I control and what can’t I control? If I worry about the things I can’t control, doubts arise, comparison ensues and I’m stuck in a reality where I’m not as good as I was, nor can I find the way to get to where I want to be. Instead, I direct my focus to the present moment and, once I tackle that moment, I move on to the next. I must focus my attention to the details of each step and trust that those individual moments constitute the greater goal.
This is powerful. This is belief in myself, my strength and willingness to try, and that these qualities can transcend hardship. Deep down I believe, if I keep showing up and continue to try, it will make me better - not just a better athlete, but better on a profound, complete level. Belief is what keeps me showing up, taking care of myself, honoring my process and not judging it. Belief is what allows me to stay in the moment and – when I’m ready – it will take me to the top once again.
About Hillary Allen
Hillary Allen is a mountain ultra runner for The North Face and Skratch Labs based out of Boulder, CO. She has her masters degree in Neuroscience and structural biology and teaches at a local college in Boulder. Follow her on Instagram @hillygoat_climbs.